What Are The Transformers? Who Is Optimus Prime?

UPDATE 24 May 07 8:30AM: If you’re on a low-bandwidth connection and / or are sick of Yahoo’s craphouse “Standard” version, the Transformers movie website now has a Flash version of the trailer. Revel in it! Revel, I say!

You may have seen Tycho’s recommendation to bask in the wonderment that is the newest trailer for the upcoming Transformers film. Me, I didn’t even need the encouragement; I was already there last week, waiting for twenty minutes for the 720p version to stream down via Quicktime. I wouldn’t have bothered, save that Yahoo’s “Standard Version” is a heap. But I tell you, that hi-def glory at 1280 x 1024 on a 19” screen is worth every second of the wait.

I mind me another trailer that got me going a couple of years ago. I will confess that Transformers inspires a different sort of anticipation than Superman Returns did, though; I know that Transformers is going to be less a character study and more a straight-up SF action film, and I’m happy with that; as I’ve written previously, as long as it gets the action right, I won’t mind if it has about as much plot as Independence Day or The Rock.

Still, it’s not just the promise of jaw-dropping special effects and action that has me keen on this film, it’s the promise of seeing some beloved characters given a thorough big-screen treatment. As a kid of the early eighties, Transformers was love at first sight. It was the Big Thing of my age group, much as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was for those who were still thoroughly enmeshed in primary school in the late eighties.

The Transformers were to me what dragons or dinosaurs might be to other kids: When you’re knee-high to a grasshopper, getting picked on some and are burdened with an overabundance of imagination, the idea of being something Big, and therefore Hard to Mess With, can be very attractive. Then there’s the fact that they were semi-rooted in the modern day; it didn’t take much of a stretch of said over-active imagination to wistfully believe that maybe that car, over there, could really be an Autobot!

Of course, one of the lessons that Transformers can teach (admittedly unintentionally) is that all being Big and Hard to Mess With usually means is that your problems are equally Big and just as Hard to Mess With – and the Autobots, the Big, Hard-to-Mess-With Good Guys of the cartoons, were continually pitted against Big, Hard-to-Mess-With Bad Guys, namely the Decepticons, led by the maniacal Megatron.

The real lesson, therefore, was that your problems won’t go away just because you’re bigger – they only go away when you standing up to them and endeavour to solve them, giving no less than your all in the process. And in this kids’ cartoon, there was no greater example of that than the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime. He was the archetypal Commander, beloved by his troops; always there in the thick of any battle, never unwilling to put himself in the firing line and never shirking or deferring a hard decision. Although there are around twenty years between now and when I seriously watched the show and I’d find it too corny to watch now, I know the writers of the show made sure he lived his name, always giving his best first. Sometimes, I think the solutions to the obstacles I shied away from in my childhood would have been more obvious had I asked myself, “Okay, what would Optimus Prime do right now? Aside from ordering the Autobots to transform and roll out.”

In 1986, an animated movie hit cinema screens, in which most of the original Autobots and Decepticons were brutally terminated – including Optimus Prime, who received a death scene all of his own. I’m pretty sure I was devastated, and I know I’m not the only one who grew attached to the character. I think Hasbro were deluged by letters from parents whose young children had taken the death of their hero badly, and by the time the movie reached me in the UK, a narration was appended to the film, reassuring the audience that Optimus would somehow return.

So now, we come to 2007. Since the original cartoon ended, the Transformers have been resurrected and reinvented through a succession of franchises – the Beast Wars, Robots In Disguise and the Unicron Trilogy. But in just over a month, the Transformers movie will treat us to an interpretation which goes back to the original cartoon, updating enough such that modern cinemagoers will find it acceptable, but, hopefully, keeping the spirit of the original – and more importantly, the spirit of Prime – intact. And if there’s one good sign of that, it’s that director Michael Bay has cast the voice of the original Optimus Prime, veteran voice actor Peter Cullen, for the role he originated back in the early eighties.

I figure, if the world could use a little more Superman, the Saviour, then it sure as heck can use a little more Optimus Prime, the Warrior.

2 thoughts on “What Are The Transformers? Who Is Optimus Prime?

  1. Luke

    Saw the trailer at the cinema – just before watching TMNT… the trailer for Transformers was SO AWESOME and the TMNT movie was so lame.
    Transformers looks dark, the machines are menacing and ominous… I love it! Not that I was into Transformers or TMNT in the eighties – but I did enjoy the latest TV series of Turtles. I hope the Transformers movie lives up to the trailer – looking forward to finding out.

  2. salidar

    When the Transformers movie debuted in 1986, I, being the loafing 12 y/o that I was, saw it 8 times in a single day. It was showing on two screens at this movie house a friend of mine and I used to go to and we would watch one then hop into the next showing in the next screen, we did that over and over and the employees just watched. You know they didn’t care and one girl even said she thought that it was cool, how much we loved the movie, but not to let her manager see us.
    Optimus Prime’s death scene was something else. And the movie had a very star wars-esque feel to it to me, with the young warrior assuming leadership for his people after many trials.
    I am looking forward to this movie very much.

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